Transforming a Physical School into a Virtual One

Deputy Head Academic, Rebecca Clyde, shares her thoughts on how Cardiff Sixth Form College turned from a physical school into a virtual one.

With three days’ notice, on Friday 20th March 2020 the UK Government shut schools in the UK due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We had an inkling that this may happen approximately 1-2 weeks ahead of this but had hoped that we would have had more time before this closure was enforced. In the week before this shut down, with the threat looking real, swift plans were made to transfer CSFC from being a physical school, with classroom based face to face teaching and learning, into a virtual, remote, online educational facility.

In one week teachers, some of whom did not even use a computer in their lessons, were expected to master delivering live online lessons to students all over the world, record these sessions and place them and all teaching, learning and assessment materials onto Google Classroom. Every single teacher threw themselves into this task positively and with enthusiasm, realising that they had less than one week to master this system. In-house staff training took place in the evenings after lessons were over; more confident teachers spent hours with less confident ones, plans, policies and back-up plans were hastily written, GDPR and Safeguarding was checked and checked again and CSFC-Online was created.

The college timetable was re-designed so that the day now starts and finishes earlier, in order for the majority of CSFC’s students to be able to connect live for each lesson with their teacher from their homes to the East of the UK and in time zones ahead of BST. All lessons are recorded and then placed on Google Classroom, for the few students who are not able to attend the live lessons to watch in their own time. Students in 37 countries around the world have all managed to attend their lessons, participate in these and continue their leaning according the original schemes of work that were set in September, prior to the pandemic outbreak.  

It is important to remember that well planned online learning experiences are always going to be very different from lessons offered online in response to a crisis or disaster, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. We can never claim to be a purpose built online educational provider but in a very short period of time all teachers moved from a physical classroom to a virtual one, continuing to deliver teaching, learning and assessment to all their learners. We are working to maintain some form of normality for our learners in a unique situation. Moving this teaching out of the formalised classroom setting almost overnight, onto an online platform, has created a flexibility that means that teaching and learning can now occur anywhere and at any time. However, the speed with which this move to online teaching has happened is unprecedented and staggering and this makes it all the more remarkable that it has occurred almost seamlessly and without too many major hiccups.

Teachers have had to improvise and find solutions quickly in less than ideal situations. No matter how clever a solution might be and some very clever solutions are emerging, many teachers are understandably finding the process challenging. Some teachers are teaching their timetable of live online lessons surrounded by their family members, with their own children requiring their time and attention and yet they are still being positive and highly professional, making their students their priority.

Being part of the wider community of Dukes has meant that some staff have been able to connect with teachers of the same subject at other Dukes schools and colleges, thus sharing good practice and ideas between them. The Duke’s Key Stage 5 Subject Lead Sharing Good Practice day, held in February meant that these contacts had already been established. For some subject teachers, these contacts have been invaluable in sharing ideas, forwarding links, teaching aids and free resources between themselves.

Although no directive was given on the style or structure of anyone’s lessons, most teachers have naturally opted for a ‘blended approach’ to their lessons. Blended learning is an approach to education that combines online educational materials and opportunities for interaction online with traditional place-based classroom methods. For a teacher who naturally is at home in a physical classroom with their students present in the same room, this approach to online delivery seems more natural for both the teacher and the learners. However, it is still a very foreign world to many.

Using Google Classroom as our learning management system, means the teachers and students can communicate in a closed system that is only accessible to the school community. It allows teachers to deliver interactive online, live lessons, where content is delivered in a blended way. It allows student assessment to occur, so that students can submit their assignments, take tests or mock exams. These are then accessible to the teacher to mark and feedback on. Google Classroom links to web pages or sites that allow teachers to present text, videos, or links to other sources and it provides discussion forums that enable students to engage in conversations about class content with teachers and with one another. In addition to the time spent in live lessons with students, teachers are also spending a significant amount of time responding to questions posted in online question-and-answer discussion forums, or on Google Classroom or sent to them by email.

Admittedly most teachers enjoy teaching in person because of the opportunity to interact with students. They enjoy sharing their passion for their subject with their students directly and watching that magical moment when the penny drops and the dawning of understanding appears on their student’s faces. Teaching online and remotely takes some of this away but our teachers have discovered that they can still be themselves. Using their voice effectively, with varying tone, volume and expression can have the same effect online as it does in a classroom. Adding humour, enthusiasm and passion is effective at drawing out responses from our students.

Our teachers are getting braver as they head into the fourth week of this style of teaching and learning; some are recording themselves in advance. In this way, rather than projecting their computer screen, with their notes or diagrams on, the class sees the teacher actually teaching the material. Students have reacted positively to this. They like the teacher bringing themselves visually to the class. It is a method which can capture the teacher’s expertise, their empathy and their teacher persona in a way that comes across with much more impact than in writing on a screen. Students appreciate seeing their teacher’s face and hearing their voice at this time, when many are feeling very isolated.

This switch from a physical school to a remote online school was forced upon us due to the current pandemic. It was created quickly as an alternative delivery mode due to the current circumstances. Our primary objective here was not to recreate a robust educational ecosystem at CSFC but rather to continue to provide a temporary solution that was quick to set up and is reliable and available to all our leaners wherever they are in the world. CSFC-Online has required some quick thinking, creative problem solving, hard work, flexibility and commitment from the staff and students and a desire to succeed in helping meet the new needs of our learners and our community.

We are hopeful that in time we will be able to return to our physical school, once the pandemic has abated but in the meantime our virtual CSFC-Online school runs full time, across the continents to all our learners. In the last month teachers and students have all been asked to do extraordinary things, including teaching course delivery and learning in a way that we have never done so before, in circumstances that we have never seen in any of our life times before. Although this is a stressful situation, it has shown CSFC and Dukes to be full of passion, dedication, commitment and love. Let’s hope that some of this remains after this is all over and we return to our physical schools.